René Syler’s morning was thrown off balance the day ABC’s Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts announced on air that she had breast cancer. The two are friends, and the news reminded Syler, formerly of CBS’ The Early Show, of the emotional rollercoaster she recently faced as she battled the threat of breast cancer.
Roberts, 46, is among an estimated 19,010 African American women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. The National Cancer Institute predicts that one in eight women born in the United States will develop the disease in their lifetime, and that the probability of a diagnosis increases once a woman turns 40. Syler, who is 44, faced those odds. She had a family history of breast cancer, and for years her own mammograms indicated microcalcifications associated with early stages of the disease. So in January she underwent a five-hour prophylactic mastectomy to remove both her breasts.
Syler’s mother and father both had breast cancer. The microcalcifications, or little white flecks, that showed up on her annual mammograms required multiple biopsies — four on the left breast, one on the right. Four years ago she was diagnosed with atypical ductal hyperplasia, an abnormal growth of cells lining the milk ducts that can be harmless but in some cases may indicate a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer in the same breast in the future. Based on these factors, her doctor estimated Syler’s risk of developing breast cancer was 40% higher than the average.
“That was a sobering number,” says Syler, a wife and _mother of two who says that with the surgery she has cut her risk down to almost zero. It was after the fourth biopsy in as many years, and all in the exact same spot on the breast, that she knew she had had enough.
“When the swelling went down I looked at what was left of my breast and I was stunned,” she says. “It had collapsed. As I was standing there in the mirror looking at myself, I said, ‘How much more of this can I take?’ It was so unfair. I was working so hard to stay healthy. That was sort of the epiphany. I was standing there crying and I said, ‘I’m not going to live my life that way. I’m going to be proactive.’”
Syler, who has since become an ambassador for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an international network of breast cancer survivors and activists, admits that her choice isn’t for everyone. “It was the decision for me. It is a very drastic surgery and a very last-resort thing.”
The proactive approach to breast cancer is atypical for African American women, who have higher death rates due to lack of medical access and utilization of early detection and treatment options. No national numbers are available for the number of prophylactic mastectomies, but they have become more common in recent years. Dr. Kathie-Ann Joseph, an African American breast surgeon and assistant professor of surgery at New